The snow bit through his gloves, burning his trembling knuckles as they ground into the white expanse. His breath came in gusts, puffing clouds around his beloved’s face as she lay trembling beneath him. He kept his head low, below the fray, his body covering hers as best he could as arrow after arrow whizzed over them. The last one had been too close for comfort, the dribble of blood on her cheek already drying on her skin.
“Through the trees!”
“Don’t let them get away!”
The Haravellian soldiers shouted their commands as the king and queen of Navah lay sprawled in the snow, hiding from the sudden attack. Ferryl could feel Adelaide’s heart pounding in time with his, not in the embrace of lovers but rather the desperate grip of two people dodging the arrows of the enemy.
The icy ground was taking its toll on Ferryl’s hands as he pinned his wife beneath him, the skin of his palms freezing though sweat beaded his brow. He dared to lift his head just enough to see exactly what was happening.
“Rebels,” he spat, catching sight of the attackers as they jumped from one tree to the next, hiding behind the fat, snow-covered trunks, firing their arrows with dizzying perfection.
Beside him, a Haravellian soldier fell with a thud, his eyes frozen in shock, his blood staining the snow, a crimson pool slowly growing beneath his throat. And around him in a pillar of black…those were…
By the hundreds.
His eyes grew wide as he took in the sight of the minuscule beasts that had once plagued and tormented him. The sunlight glinted off their wings, which were iridescent despite their sheer blackness. So similar to the moths he had seen that morning not so long ago on the mountain in Haravelle, despite their darkness. More than moths. More than insects, they were…
I don’t think they’re really moths, he heard his wife say in his mind. He turned his attention back to her, only to narrowly dodge another arrow as it whizzed just above his head.
Ferryl gritted his teeth, took the risk, and grabbed the fallen soldier’s bow before jumping to his feet, pulling Adelaide into a sprint with him.
This way, he said for only her benefit. She followed without hesitation, letting him shield her with his body as they sped through the icy forest.
She landed by a fat sycamore, her breast rising and falling rapidly, her back to the fat trunk. Ferryl covered her body with his own, peering around the tree as her hot breaths caressed his neck. Just one shot…if he could just get in one shot…
Ferryl, she said, her words breathless even in her mind. There were ten rebels that he could see, their black arrows meeting their targets much too easily. Perhaps these were Midvarish wraith beasts. Or perhaps they were just boys. They moved too rapidly to tell. Either way, Ferryl and Derwin had met one of them in Ramleh only a few months ago. Met and killed him. Today would be no different.
Ferryl, he heard again, turning to meet her eyes. But Adelaide was not looking at her husband. And when he realized her gaze was fixed behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.
He whirled, facing his enemy whilst simultaneously pressing Adelaide against the sycamore. For as long as he could, Providence save him, he would protect her. Because the world did not yet know that she lived. It did not yet know that the lost princess Adelaide of Haravelle had been found.
And Providence help them all when that fact was no longer a secret.
No, this was just a random rebel attack as they journeyed south to Navah. It had to be.
“Hiding something, Princeling?” said the man. No, not a man. A beast. A wraith. A devil incarnate. A demon made flesh with teeth as black as obsidian and skin as rough as boot hide. He grinned—if you could call it a grin––and his eyes glittered with the promise of a swift death.
“How rude of me,” the man went on, and Ferryl used the moment to press Adelaide more closely behind him. He dropped the soldier’s bow, inching his hand toward his side for the hilt of his sword. Adelaide’s breath was steady at his neck.
“I suppose you’re not a princeling anymore. Daddy’s dead.”
Ferryl bared his teeth, unsheathing his blade, the metal singing as it extended before him, the steel glinting off of the sun-kissed snow, momentarily blinding them both.
“What is that you’re hiding so fiercely?” the beast asked, cocking his black head to one side, unfazed by Ferryl’s sword. Blood dripped from his thick hands, a shock of crimson against his charred skin. The blood of Haravellian soldiers, no doubt. Ferryl took a moment to thank Providence that King Aaron and Queen Avigail’s carriage was far down the road towards Benalle—hopefully out of danger.
The beast-man bore no weapons. At least not any that Ferryl could see. He was not sure whether to be relieved or terrified. But he let the bastard speak. Let the beast buy him some time while he made a plan and figured out how in Sheol to keep Adelaide safe while he killed a nearly invincible foe.
“What a pity that you should lose your whore so soon after losing your dear father,” the man purred.
Ferryl lunged. Whether it was prompted by blind instinct or vengeful rage, he couldn’t be sure, but he would be damned if he let this beast get the better of him. And he sure as Sheol wasn’t about to let him take his wife.
So Ferryl lunged. And parried. He whirled and spun. He called on every skill which had been trained into him and every ounce of the strength in his bones.
But it was not enough. Not against a man who was more than a man. Not against a demon.
Ferryl cried out as the beast whipped a sword from his back, slicing through the air with deadly accuracy, aiming right for his heart. It missed, but only just. And when Ferryl whirled to parry, that’s when he realized—
“Adelaide!” he called out, panicking that she was not there at the tree. He realized his mistake the moment the beast started laughing.
“Not doing a very good job of hiding your precious princess,” he said. And then he lunged. The beast moved so fast Ferryl hardly had a split-second to react. He lifted his sword but it was too late.
No, it should have been too late.
The beast should have killed him. Skewered him like a stuck pig.
Instead the beast fell, toppling to the ground like a sack of potatoes. And from behind his gargantuan form, Ferryl saw the reason for his foe’s sudden demise.
“I am not a princess,” Adelaide growled, ripping a dagger from the beast’s back. “I am the queen of Navah.”
The beast groaned, clutching his side from where the black blood pumped in thick rivers across the snow. Ferryl wasted no time lifting his sword, and the beast’s head was severed with one fatal blow.
Black, oily blood sprayed her face, neck, and hands, yet Adelaide stood resolute, eye to eye with the king of Navah. Her breaths came heavily but steadily, the tremble of the dagger in her hand the only glimmer of any fear in her veins.
A moth—no, a butterfly landed on her shoulder, its wings glowing fiercely and radiantly ruby against the backdrop of fallen snow. And Ferryl could have sworn it bowed. Bowed. But he couldn’t be sure before it flitted away.
“Where did you learn—”
“Your Majesties!” cried a soldier, cutting Ferryl off. “Here, John! They’re over here!”
Though she surely knew what question he’d started to ask, Adelaide said nothing as she let the soldiers guide her back to the road and the carriage that awaited them.
Steam billowed around her bare shoulders, curling the rogue midnight locks that spilled from the pile of hair atop her head. She poured a basin of water over her arm as Ferryl made his way into the tiny inn privy somewhere inside of Navah’s northern borders.
Wordlessly, he took the cloth from the side of her small tub and set about washing her. Adelaide let out a soft moan as he began working a handful of lavender oil into her shoulders.
“Are you going to tell me where in the world you got that dagger, or are you going to leave me guessing?” he asked.
She breathed a laugh, her black lashes resting on her cheeks as she relaxed into his touch. Sixteen years. Sixteen years he had known her, and yet Adelaide of Haravelle never ceased to surprise him. And terrify him.
“Mother gave it to me when we were in Chesedelle. She said it was no good for a queen to be unarmed. Or unskilled.”
“You learned to brandish a blade in our time in Haravelle?” he chuckled, unable to resist pressing a kiss to her bare, oil-slicked shoulder.
“No. But I did learn a few tricks on exactly where to stick it should the need arise.”
“I see,” he said. “And you never thought to tell me?”
She cocked her head to one side, meeting his eyes. “Would you have approved?”
“Absolutely not,” he said.
She kissed him soundly and with so much passion that Ferryl’s interest in his wife’s weapon-wielding soon began to wane.
“Which is why I didn’t tell you,” she said when at last she took her lips from his.
“Adelaide, I will protect you.”
“I know, Ferryl. But you may not always be able to.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “You’re not allowed to leave my side.”
“If you think that now that I’m your wife you’re going to put me in a cage and pull me out to pet me now and then, you married the wrong woman.”
He laughed, pulling her hair down and running his fingers through it. “There is no cage that could hold you, my love. Or I would have already tried.”
She turned, resting her chin on her arms where they perched on the side of the tub.
“Ferryl, I know you’re joking. But I also know that if you could, you would hide me away from the world until all this business with Midvar is over.”
He looked down, fiddling with the thread of her washcloth, knowing it was true, knowing she was right. The woman saw straight through him. She always had.
She drew his attention back to her, running her fingers through his hair. “We face war, my love. You cannot protect me from everything.”
“I can try, can’t I?”
“Providence has brought us both this far. Do not take the credit from him so soon.”
He pressed his brow to hers, the steam from her bath billowing around them both. “Are you always right about everything?”
“Yes,” she said.
He kissed her once, swiftly, reaching so that he might lift her out of the tub. The water sloshed around her, dousing his gauzy white shirt and breeches. But he did not care. Holding his wife to his chest like a newborn babe, he carried her out of the privy and into their tiny attached bedchamber, laying her down on the paltry excuse for a bed.
He climbed over her, devouring the sight of her beneath him as he said, “Well, you were certainly right about one thing.”
“And what is that?” she asked, a smile threatening her mouth as he moved to remove his sodden clothes.
“It is good for a queen to be armed,” he said, settling himself over her once more. He bent and pressed a kiss to her neck, still slick from her bath. “It gives her people peace of mind,” he said as he let his lips make their way down, down, down… “It gives her husband peace of mind,” he went on. When she let out a little breath of delight, he smiled against her skin and continued his exploration. “And it is certainly a turn on.”
“You, husband, are hopeless,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice as he moved to worship the queen of Navah.